Sunday, April 18, 2021

COVID-19 and Lawyers Returning to the Workplace

Just a quick follow-up to my April 12 post on COVID-19 and Lawyers Working from Home.  In that post, I indicated that law firms had been slow to adopt work from home before COVID-19 hit.  I also raised a question about the extent to which work-at-home solutions would survive the pandemic.  And I noted that "[t]here is so much I could say about all this."

I learned this week that property security solutions provider Kastle Systems International LLC has created an online "Back to Work Barometer" that tracks real estate occupancy.  Based on data reported for last week (April 12 & 13), "[t]he legal industry is returning to work at a much higher rate than other industries."  The average reported occupancy rate for all industries was 24%.  But for the legal industry, the reported average rate was 37.2%. 

Earlier this year, it was predicted that many law firms would begin to return to work in earnest in the spring.  See here.  But reports also note later return dates and continued work from home for some.  See here and here.

Culture considerations also may interact with post-COVID-19 returns to the workplace, as I briefly indicated in my April 12 post.  Maureen Naughton, Goodwin Procter's Chief Innovation Officer, recently wrote a piece published by Bloomberg Law that offers some important reflections and wise advice on the culture issue:

While a commitment to a more flexible, work-from-anywhere workplace is welcome and overdue, consider its effect on your organization’s culture and sense of community.

Culture takes a long time to build but can dissipate quickly. And culture is certainly stronger when people can spend time together; spontaneous meetings and interactions increase our sense of community, foster development and mentorship, and spark innovative ideas at a moment’s notice.

Such meetings are at the foundation of an innovative and collaborative culture and we must make a concerted effort to preserve what makes us unique while maintaining a healthy, safe environment for our clients and colleagues.

As we evaluate the post-Covid-19 workplace, we must balance the flexibility afforded by remote work with its cultural implications. It is a careful balance, which—if calibrated properly—can benefit rather than harm your culture.

I may be wrong, but I do see office culture as a key concern for law firms--and, in all honesty, for law schools, too.  The autonomy of law professors is well known.  Even before the pandemic, many had decreased their time in the office.  Weaker cultural bonds as among faculty may have impacts on faculty shared governance.

I still may have more to say on this, but I wanted to note these points while they were still fresh on my mind . . . .

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Participated in the first “in office” document execution last week. It was exhilarating except for the drive and the parking, the battery of questions, the masks, etc.

My office is small enough that it remained open (one attorney) and minimally staffed throughout the lockdowns and to date. There was constant Covid testing and “waiting periods” before return to the office. Very little drama as the lawyers gathered off-site to simply break the routine.

Conversely, my wife’s office at a major corporation (off its corporate campus) has and continues to be abandoned since March 10, 2021. The only time she has been to the office (on weekends) has been to pick up office supplies. With the technology to function even more efficiently from home (no commute), her department foresees – if not permanent – a minimal, intermittant physical presence at a central location. However, this department has always been somewhat compartmentalized and self-directed. During this time period, the department did gather socially (as distinct from professionally) in-person to engage at different periods. However, should people age-out or transfer, the need for one-on-one training may strain this newfound remote work place.

With the need to acclimate, teach and direct on-boarding lawyers, I can absolutely see that law offices and also accounting firms have a particular need for immediate and personal interaction that technology does not accomplish. I believe that footprints will shrink but the office as anchor will assert itself in the legal and accounting fields.

All said, I expect a glut of commercial office space to exist for some time. Then, as we Americans tend to so easily do – forget – I’m sure the drive to centralize and control will reassert itself.

Posted by: Tom N. | Apr 20, 2021 10:01:56 AM

I appreciate the personal stories and the related observations, Tom N. I do think service providers like lawyers and accountants may at least perceive more of a need to be in person to develop the human bonds and group-work culture that makes for efficient, effective service provision. But see virtual law firms . . . .

Personally, I am concerned about the Zoom/appointment exhaustion I have been experiencing. Some work gets done so much more easily and efficiently when people can just stop by your office for a few minutes. The hassle of setting up telephone conferences and virtual appointments with colleagues--and then participating in them energetically and cordially--puts more work into my day that I do not welcome, to be frank. I am enthusiastic about in-person work for that reason, among others, here at the law school.

Posted by: joanheminway | Apr 20, 2021 11:34:35 AM

Amen on Zoom exhaustion. I currently pine for in-person CLE.

Posted by: Tom N. | Apr 20, 2021 2:46:01 PM

I am with you on that, Tom N. That grass on the other side certainly is green, isn't it? (Lol.)

Posted by: joanheminway | Apr 20, 2021 8:43:46 PM

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